What is a physicist?
Physicists are scientists specializing in physics, which is the area of science that studies the structure of matter and how different pieces of the universe interact. From tiny gadgets to giant balls of matter in space, physicists study many aspects of the universe. Job opportunities exist in academia, research labs, government agencies, and the corporate world.
Physicists study interactions of matter and energy and apply that knowledge to help solve scientific and technical problems. These scientists also develop new theories to explain how time, matter, and other concepts of the physical world came to be.
Duties and responsibilities
Physicists handle a variety of duties, from researching to designing to testing theories. They plan and conduct various science experiments to test theories about matter and energy. The experiments utilize software programs, allowing scientists to build models and test new limits of their theories.
Studying and measuring all the components of the physical world, like subatomic particles and the larger universe. Physicists design and build unique instruments used for observations and help broaden the knowledge of the physics world. Physicists frequently use tools like radars, telescopes, and satellites to gather data.
The typical work environment for physicists changes based on what field of work they have chosen. Many physicists work in academia and will split their time between classrooms and labs instructing, planning coursework, and conducting research projects.
For those in the corporate world, there will be more time in offices and conference rooms presenting information and working with other team members. Regardless of your position, you will probably split your time between an office setting and a lab or space where you can test, model, make observations, and conduct experiments.
Typical work hours
Work hours for a physicist will be pretty standard Monday through Friday. There might be night classes at a university or evening observations if you are using a telescope, but most of the work will be done during the typical office hours of the working world (9-5).
How to become a physicist
In order to become a physicist, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:
Step 1: Take introduction classes in physics
If you are discovering what type of science you want to pursue as a career path, take advantage of some of the incredible introduction courses. Here are a few recommendations for you to get started:
- Get a great overview of physics in the course How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics. The course uses things like skateboards and ramps to help explain some of the most important concepts.
- Exploring Quantum Physics from Coursera covers topics like Cooper Pairs, Quantum Oscillators, and Time Dependence. This is a great option to take your physics knowledge to the next level.
- Coursera also has a class called Understanding Modern Physics I: Relatively and Cosmology. The syllabus includes space, time, energy, entropy, and particles. Understand more about how space and time are relative and determine the framework to understand the evolution of the whole universe and how it’s related to the origin of space and matter and the universe’s fate.
- Sign up for Classical Physics: Journey Through the Laws of the Universe and learn how to speak and utilize the language of Lagrangian Mechanics. This class will help you program algorithms and develop simulations like the ones that power your favorite video games.
- The Complete Physics Course from Udemy covers all the basics, so it would be a good refresher before continuing your education or reviewing before exams. It reviews vectors, scalars, linear motion, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and conservation of momentum.
Step 2: Get a bachelor’s degree in physics
For any role in physics, it will be required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. You can study physics or graduate with a degree in calculus, chemistry, computer science, or something similar. Make sure to take various science classes and network with your program’s professors and other students.
Step 3: Gain research experience
Ask professors if they have any projects that need research assistance. Having experience and learning in the field benefits your resume and career path. You can try different fields of study and see which areas interest you most. Plus, you’ll get the experience of participating and working alongside more seasoned scientists.
Step 4: Earn a postgraduate degree
Some career paths require additional education and a master’s degree in a specific sector of physics. Choose between atomic physics, space physics, materials science, applied physics, biophysics, mathematical physics, or stellar structure. You’ll also have a connection to a research facility and can participate in other research projects.
Step 5: Complete your physics doctorate work
Doctorate programs in physics are research-oriented. The first two years will include a common set of eight core courses. Then, you’ll develop a dissertation and research your area of study. This degree typically takes a few years once you choose your specialty.
Step 6: Apply for jobs
Utilize the connections you made during your studies to find job openings. Especially if you want to get into academia, your professors and administrators might be able to alert you to any openings. You can also apply for openings at government agencies or private companies looking for a physicist.
How much do physicists make?
There are many variables that go into determining how much a physicist makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paying places of employment and specific industries for physicist are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Scientific research and development services – $ 162,240
- Federal executive branch – $126,930
- College, universities, and professional schools – $104,050
- General medical and surgical hospitals – $201,310
The top-paying states for physicists to work in are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Pennsylvania – $201,200
- Kansas – $183,600
- Arizona – $175,510
- California – $173,440
- Missouri – $169,760
The average national salary for a physicist is:
Types of physicists
The main role of a theoretical physicist is to invent and study theories. This type of role involves a lot of mathematics, calculations, and chemistry, and helps to understand the universe and the complex interactions between matter and energy. This role focuses more on the formal aspects of physics (think Albert Einstein) and spends time studying and calculating.
Experimental physicists work in labs and test the theories that theoretical physicists come up with. They might make new discoveries or revise the theories as they test the hypotheses. This type of physicist also develops new equipment that can assist with testing.
Applied physicists work in roles that put the studies and theories into practice. They work to solve engineering problems and build the architecture that helps enrich lives. Whether it’s industrial work or providing radiation treatment to cancer patients, this is the most hands-on type of physicist role.
Top skills for physicists
You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a physicist. For many roles, postgraduate education is required, like a master’s or Ph.D. Take as many courses on physics and other areas of science, plus a solid understanding of mathematical principles is important. Proficiency with all the tools used for research and tests is also important.
Detail-oriented and analytical thinkers would make great physicists. A strong curiosity and desire to explore and understand some unexplainable phenomenon will be essential in this role. Communication skills come into play during the role because you’ll often need to present or teach information to others that might not be familiar with the field of physics, and you’ll need to be able to explain at a level that others understand.
Looking for a new job?
Browse our national database of physicist job openings and apply today
There are many different career paths for physicists. Once you finish your education, you can choose which area is most interesting to you. Physicists study everything from stars to machines, so the amount of career paths is incredibly vast.
- Medical/Healthcare – Physicists are responsible for delivering radiation treatment for cancer patients and use nuclear medical imaging to diagnose diseases.
- Climate/Meteorology – Physicists in the climate field help predict climate change and its impacts on the planet.
- Lasers/Photonics – Photonics is the science of making, controlling, and using light.
- Academia – Many teacher and professor positions are available in physics, from high schools to top-rated universities. This is a common career path for physicists because it allows research projects in addition to teaching.
- Astronomy/Space – Astrophysicists answer questions about distance, time periods, and other mysteries of the universe.
- Coding/Programming – Some physicists help write codes for games and other programs and help with engineering issues.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook
The role of physicists changes with each new discovery and technological advancement. The field is always evolving, so the opportunities will change, but once you have a degree in physics, you can check out different career paths.
Employment projections for physicists
Overall employment for physicists is projected to grow by around 8% faster than the average. Openings will come from retirements and transfers to a different career path.
Physicist career tips
Soft skills and traits for physicists
Communication skills, both verbal and written, will be utilized when reporting findings and providing updates on research projects. Physicists should have curious personalities and constantly search for answers and unsolved mysteries. A strong interest in how things work will drive your motivation and help you figure out how to solve the universe’s problems.
Commonly required skills and qualifications
To get a job in physics, you should have a strong knowledge base in other areas of science, like chemistry and biology. You’ll need experience with research and technical reporting of findings. Build up your experience and comfort with working on computer programs and tools commonly used in your field, like Python. Data analysis is the number one skill listed on resumes and is constantly used in physics careers.
Develop a professional network
Connecting with other individuals in the field of physics can be a great boost for your career options. Check out a professional network to meet other physicists and students studying physics. Here are a few recommendations to start with:
- Institute of Physics
- Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
- National Society of Black Physicists
- International Association of Physics Students
- National Society of Hispanic Physicists
- American Physical Society
Where the jobs are
- Research and development
- Physics today
- Science Careers
- Physics World Jobs
What skills are required to become a physicist?
Physicists do a lot of research and test theories, so paying attention to details, feeling comfortable using computer technology, and preparing reports on findings are important. Strong knowledge in science and mathematics is also critical and can be gained in school.
What are job opportunities available for physicists?
With a degree in physics, there are many different career paths. You can become a teacher/professor, research scientist, astronomer, medical physicist, engineer, or programmer.
How much education do I need to become a physicist?
There are career opportunities for physicists at each level of education. If you want to work in academia, a master’s degree is essential. If you have a Ph.D., the job opportunities are plentiful, with research opportunities and government jobs.
What are the types of physicist jobs available?
Most physicists work at universities, government organizations, or private corporations. Unless you’re a teacher, the types of jobs are usually doing research and developing physics theories and explanations for things that happen in the universe.
Is becoming a physicist hard?
Becoming a physicist is strenuous and takes a long time due to the education and research experience required to enter the field. This is a great career path if you love science and want a post-graduate degree.
What does a physicist do?
Physicists study the universe and everything in it. They work on theories involving space and matter and the transfer and interaction of energy. Whether studying in a lab or behind a computer screen, physicists are constantly pushing the boundaries and helping to understand everything happening in the universe.
Are there any common challenges that physicists face in their role?
Physicists face struggles and challenges with all the major unsolved mysteries, like quantum gravity. Even when one problem is solved, there will always be more. There are also struggles with mental health and work/life balance with some employers.
What are the current topics that physicists are working on?
Physicists are working on several large and important areas, including atomic and optical physics, field theory, nuclear physics, gravitation, cosmology, mathematics, and general physics.
What is the best scientist role if I’m interested in space?
If your dream is to work for NASA or another organization that works in space, you should study astronomy, physics, chemistry, engineering, or biology. Astronomy studies space, but these other areas of study are important when designing tools to study other planets and galaxies.
How can I get research experience to become a physicist?
Research experience is essential on resumes when applying for jobs in the field of physics. To find research projects you can participate in, check with your professors (either past or present) and see what they are working on and if they need help. Many universities have publications that list the opportunities that need help.